A Tale of One City: Moscow

A Tale of One City: Moscow

This feature is part of A Tale of One City

“Daddy needs vodka, or he can’t ensure victory.”

When Oleg Romanstev sent his five-year-old son into the VIP box at Anfield during a Champions League tie between Spartak Moscow and Liverpool in 2002 demanding strong liquor, it was a sign of the sad demise of one of the most powerful, charismatic and revered figures in Russian football – and by extension the club he had managed with such distinction for so long.

Following the breakup of the USSR in 1991, Spartak dominated the brand new Russian Premier League, winning nine league titles out of ten under Romantsev’s leadership between 1992 and 2001, but by then they were already the best-loved club not just in the capital but in the whole of the Soviet Union. Unlike the other major Moscow clubs, Spartak had no direct affiliation to the government or industry – they were set up as a wholly independent entity, and named after the Greek slave who fought the powerful Romans for his freedom, symbolising the escapist, romantic ideals on which the club were founded

CSKA, however, are commonly known as the Army Men having been converted into the ‘Central Sports Club of the Army’ to showcase the finest athletic talents the Soviet military had to offer. Corinthian Casuals they were not. But this rivalry is not a simple working class/ruling class battle through social strata – it has developed over nearly a century via corruption and fair play, secret police and exile, dictators and intellectuals. As with most things in Russian life, all is not what it seems at first glance.

CSKA could never claim the same level of popularity as Spartak, given their historical links to the army, and by extension the state, despite their domination of the first decade of the millennium. To understand the relationship between the Muscovite giants one must look back to before the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War as it is known in Mother Russia.

Founded in 1911 by a group of skiing enthusiasts, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the club was taken over by the Soviet Army as a way to provide an outlet for their soldiers. Controlling the draft, they were essentially able to take their pick of the finest young players to represent them, and they claimed five out of the first six Soviet Championships after the war; but it was the group of unaffiliated upstarts that drew first blood before the very real bloodshed began across the globe.

Sport has forever been used as a tool for propaganda and political manoeuvring, never more so than in Moscow – Dynamo’s president Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria was head of the KGB, Lokomotiv were backed by the state railway company, Lev Yashin’s Dynamo by the Zil manufacturing plant, but Spartak were the team of the trade unions. For the Army team to be ceding success to the average working man was not an ideal portrayal of supreme military power, especially as it only took three years for the ‘krasno-belye’ [red and whites] to win the Soviet Championship after aligning with the meat suppliers Promkooperstia, hence one of their many nicknames ‘myaso’, or meat.

It wasn’t only CSKA that felt jealousy towards Spartak in those days of early success for The People’s Club; in fact Dynamo’s relationship with the red and whites was decidedly more intense, fuelled by a very personal vendetta. Beria was not only president of Dynamo, but as head of the secret police he was Stalin’s right hand man, effectively in charge of eliminating unwanted dissidents and political opponents, and as such had more than a ruthless streak – he was as single-minded as his boss, and loathed the idea of not succeeding. Perhaps deep down it was more of a fear of failure, given the immense pressure he would be under if he displeased the man said to be responsible for an estimated 20 million deaths.

The fact that Spartak played a demonstration match against their reserves entirely for Stalin’s benefit on a makeshift pitch in Red Square in 1936, and were the team the leader’s son followed, only served to grate on Beria’s nerves. When he was growing up in his native Georgia, he was a combative but limited left-half, and he faced a certain Nikolai Starotsin, who would just so happen to found the very club that would steal his thunder a decade or so later.

Starotsin and his three brothers all played for the club – Nikolai went on to captain the Soviet Union at both football and ice hockey – and their founding principles of fair play and freedom of expression came to form the identity of the club. This rankled with Beria, who enjoyed the elevated status within the communist system his position provided. Unable to withstand the growing influence and popularity of Starotsin’s club, he had him and his brothers sent to a gulag in Siberia for ten years on falsified charges of plotting to assassinate Stalin. Despite the hardships of imprisoned life, Starotsin survived thanks to his football background, although in truth it was what his football stood for that gained him a following across the country.

Following Stalin’s death in 1953 he returned to the capital to find a severely weakened squad and a resurgent CSKA. Toke Theilade is a Russian football expert for russianfootballnews.com, and he explains the situation Starotsin was welcomed with:

“In the USSR days CSKA, as the Army club, had the opportunity to pick the best players through the draft,” he told me, “which obviously was a great advantage. Another great advantage came during the Second World War, when CSKA managed to keep their players and staff away from the fronts, which caused them to get through the war without any casualties, where three Spartak players lost their lives. After the war CSKA, and Dynamo, managed to snatch several players from a much weakened Spartak squad. They were often very persuasive.”

The brutal force with which Spartak’s squad was decimated was matched only by how “persuasive”  suitors were – exactly what methods were used to coerce players to join the Army Men are unclear, but it wouldn’t take much imagination to work out. This inevitably led to their roaring run in the immediate aftermath of the worldwide conflict, while Spartak were left to rebuild from the ground up.

After surviving the oppression of one of history’s bloodiest dictators, and of course the atrocities of war, the common man was rewarded with half a century of restricted movement, speech and expression in all areas of life, except one: football. There are many threads that explain the reason behind Spartak’s tag as The People’s Club; some say it was consolidated by their free-flowing Avant-garde attacking philosophy of the 1980s, others that it was from their links to the unions, but certainly the most powerful factor was the ability to choose who they followed.

It is hard now for westerners to conceptualise the control over people’s lives that communism brought for Soviet people, but the stadium was the one place they could gather en masse at will and express their identity. Igor Rabiner is a famous journalist born in Odessa in what is now Ukraine, a town he describes as having been “bright and naughty” and the “humour capital of the USSR”.

“That most people there supported Spartak as opposed to their main rivals Dynamo Kyiv was a demonstration of this inner freedom.” Theilade offers another angle on the attraction of following Spartak; “Their rivalry with Dynamo and CSKA has always been seen as the common man’s fight against a superior force. This is of course the romantic way of describing Spartak’s popularity. Another reason could be that they simply were the best football team in Moscow and the Soviet Union for a long time, which made them popular among the country’s football fans. But of course it helped a lot with Spartak’s popularity that they were not, officially, connected to the state.”

Perhaps the most surprising element of CSKA’s recruitment tactics was that they believed football fans could be won over merely by results. Spartak fans proudly highlight Igor Netto informing the referee in the 1962 World Cup match against Chile that the ball had snuck in via a hole in the net and was not in fact a valid goal as an example of their philosophy of fair play. Or the Starotsins’ refusal to beg the Russian Football Union to ‘accommodate’ them by expanding the Premier League on the one occasion of them finishing bottom in 1976, like Zenit Leningrad had done nine years earlier.

If there was one moment that crystalized this reputation for ethical purity, it was surely in the decisive match of the 1983 season against title rivals Dnepr Dnepropetrovsk when Spartak defender Sergey Bazulev refused to haul down Dnepr striker Oleh Taran to prevent him from scoring. Manager Konstantin Beskov congratulated him for his honesty, despite it effectively costing his side the title; it is doubtful whether this would be repeated in today’s game.

The Army Men’s post-war run of championship wins soon dissipated as Spartak recovered. In fact, after their last title of that period in 1951, they only managed two league titles in the whole second half of the twentieth century, spending a large portion of the 1980s in the second tier of Soviet football. Meanwhile, Spartak enhanced their following with Beskov’s fluid style of gung-ho attacking play, in direct contrast to their great Soviet Championship rivals Dynamo Kyiv, the precise scientists of the legendary Valeriy Lobanovsiy.

During this most romantic period of Spartak’s history, despite residing in different divisions for much of the 80s, the enmity between the sides was still strong. Fans began using their self-appointed brand of The People’s Team more than ever during the formative years of the newly-formed Russian Federation, something Rabiner had been worried about.

“Even in the nineties I got the feeling that respectable people were turning away from Spartak,” he wrote. “For that audience the team always embodied freedom, but at that time it turned into something official, ostentatious, showy. The stinking term ‘the People’s Team’ appeared from nowhere and started to be used everywhere.”

Even if it had sprung up at that time, the reputation was one that had always been present between Spartak and CSKA. Supporters of the Krasno-Belye referred to their rivals as ‘the horses’ – a derogatory term at the time referring to the proximity of a hippodrome near CSKA’s stadium. Alexander Tokarchuk is a journalist with ASNTA based in Tyumen and a lifelong Spartak fan, and he describes the relationship between the clubs and their followers as intense.

“CSKA became the first club to start beating Spartak regularly [after 2001]. Spartak failed to beat CSKA for seven years, which cause frenzied excitement. Well, the fans are very much at war with each other.” Defeats have often resulted in heavy consequences. Following a 3-0 defeat to their city rivals, CSKA players were sent away to an Army training camp for two weeks as a punishment. Tokarchuk recalls a more recent result. “I remember very well the epic 5-1 defeat of Spartak in the summer of 2008. After the match, the club kicked out club legends Yegor Titov and Maxim Kalinichenko.”

The last two decades have been characterised by two men in particular – Oleg Romantsev and Yevgeniy Giner – and they have both left their mark on the relationship between the clubs. Romantsev’s descent into alcoholism came after the most dominant period the club had known after the fall of the Soviet Union. Only Alania Vladikavkaz’s 1995 league title – won ironically by Valeriy Gazzaev, who would later manage CSKA to three Russian Premier League titles, three Russian Cups, three Russian Super Cups and the historic UEFA Cup – spoiling a perfect ten titles in a row, but the change of power was frighteningly swift.

Spartak’s talismanic manager ruled with an absolute authority that drew his players closer together and built a seemingly indestructible stranglehold on Russian football. As he held the position of club president, major shareholder, as well as first team manager, his control was complete, and he had no interference from his employers, simply because he had none. As his health deteriorated, his decision to sell all of his majority shareholding to Andrei Chervichenko in 2003 brought his reign to an abrupt end when Chervichenko himself fired him soon after wresting control of the club off Romantsev.

Rabiner offers an explanation as to why this could have been allowed to happen after the roaring success that preceded it. “It was the perfect concatenation of roles because it meant he couldn’t be sacked. It’s a very Russian situation: Spartak, with a heritage that touches millions; Spartak, where the Starotsin brothers created a unique democracy for Soviet football clubs; suddenly turned into the empire of a single person. And because of the absolute nature of his power and the absence of control, both the club and the man began to decay.”

It could have been so different. Yevgeniy Giner has run CSKA for over a decade brilliantly, overseeing a transformation into senior partner in the relationship with astute business acumen and no shortage of controversy. His friendship with Roman Abramovich may raise eyebrows to foreign observers, but Giner insists that it has had no effect on the success of the club, despite the Abramovich-run Sibneft sponsoring the club in the previous decade.

Saul Pope is a Russian columnist for When Saturday Comes, and he believes the efficiency with which the club is run is key to their recent resurgence. “CSKA’s budget is smaller than that of the other big Moscow clubs, so any links to the state haven’t helped financially,” he told me. “[Their success] has also been helped by what I see as a second to none scouting network and eye for inexpensive talent – CSKA is the club that picked up Wagner Love, Daniel Carvalho, Chidi Odiah and Seydou Doumbia, who the others all missed.”

He has been a divisive character in the Russian game, something Tokarchuk highlights. “For Giner, Spartak is a strong irritant. In the press he strongly jeers at Spartak – he recently called them a ‘vile’ club.” Whichever way you look at his influence, he cannot be ignored. In 2002, Romantsev was approached by none other than Giner himself with a view to investing in the club, but crucially making Spartak’s supremo just a simple head coach and removing his autocratic domination of the club. The irony is that the stability Giner has brought to CSKA is exactly what Spartak have been missing – a year later, Romatsev relented and sold his stake in the club to the trigger happy Chervichenko, who in turn fired the inspiration of a decade of domination.

Compare the defences of each club in the last ten years or so: CSKA have had Igor Akinfeev in goal, Sergey Ignashevich and Vasiliy Berezutskiy at centre half, but their red and white rivals have had no fewer than 12 centre backs, including Nemanja Vidić, Marcos Rojo and Martin Jiránek, and six first-choice keepers. Since Leonid Slutskiy took the managerial reigns in 2009, Spartak have gone through five managers.

It has long been rumoured, but never proven, that Giner was also involved in many instances of bribery. He has admitted that he sees no problem in “stimulation” of opponents of his rivals, but refutes claims that he has directly paid officials to influence results in his favour. When Marc Bennetts interviewed the man himself for his book Football Dynamo, Giner replied to the author’s question about bribery defiantly. “No one likes the rich or powerful. No one likes our success. If some games might appear strange, it does not mean we bribed our opponents. You have, it appears, been paying too much attention to Spartak’s outbursts.”

In 2006, after a controversial 2-1 win away to Rostov, NTV reporter Vasiliy Utkin publically claimed the match had been fixed after watching some very suspect defending by the hosts for the first goal. Even two-goal match winner Ivica Olić said “I always seem to get lucky in Rostov.” A court case initially concluded that the claims were unsubstantiated, and although an appeal was launched, Giner has remained in his position and CSKA rolled on to win three league titles and five cups in the decade.

In recent years, the Gazprom-backed Zenit Saint Petersburg machine has loomed into view, affecting the significance of the CSKA-Spartak derby in terms of league position; the Army Men’s league win last year was mightily impressive in the face of Zenit’s enormous wealth, while Spartak missed out on European qualification altogether, a full 14 points off the champions.

Aleks V, founder and editor of goalchatter.blogspot.com, agrees: “CSKA have good prospects. They have skilfully built up the club policy with a small budget, and were able to win back to back league titles ahead of Zenit with a budget that is 2.5 times smaller.” Pope believes that Zenit’s influence goes even further. “I think [Zenit’s emergence] changed the whole dynamic of Russian football – even a decade ago they were still the plucky outsiders who might put together a UEFA Cup run, but nothing more. Now they’re the team to beat and will remain so for the foreseeable future.”

The truth is that attendances in domestic Russian football have been poor for a long time – the average attendance in the top flight is around 11,000, and even that figure has been inflated by the opening of two World Cup stadia, Rubin Kazan’s Kazan Arena and Spartak’s Otkritie Arena. When Spartak and CSKA clash, however, there is an atmosphere that no amount of money can buy. Even if they are not likely to battle out for the title in a tense neck and neck race, Zenit is never going to muscle in on the Moscow rivalry completely.

Like most Russian cities, St Petersburg has one major club offering a huge fan base for its lavishly assembled superstars, but what they lack is the deep rooted historical relationship that identifies the clashes between the capital clubs. Tokarchuk sums up the enigma of CSKA – Spartak. “Every match is remembered. This rivalry is like a great film.”

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint